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The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime, by Miles Harvey

March 22, 2007


The 1375 Catalan map with Mansa Musa, King of Mali.

     This is a book about maps, and the greatest map thief of modern times: Gilbert Bland, Jr.  The book is about much more than a criminal, however.  Every conceivable bit of information that you might connect with maps is written about with great passion in this book; information that is intriguing, enlightening, riveting, and astonishing. 

    And where do we find most maps?  In an atlas – and what is an atlas?  A book!  Atlases from a world that was beginning to look like the one we know today, were highly prized in the 1500’s.  These unique treasures presently live in libraries all over the country, and are looked after by the sentinel of the library: librarians.  Now can you imagine walking into a tranquil, inviting library with a knife, sitting quietly in a rare book room, and cutting maps out of books?  Books that have been well taken care of and cherished for 500 years?  One must shudder.

     Possibly my favorite paragraph in the book:

     “What a vapid job title our culture gives to those honorable laborers the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians variously called Learned Men of the Magic Library, Scribes of the Double House of Life, Mistresses of the House of Books, or Ordainers of the Universe.  Librarian – that mouth-contorting, graceless grind of a word, that dry gulch in the dictionary between libido and licentious – it practically begs you to envision a stoop-shouldered loser, socks mismatched, eyes locked in  a permanent squint from reading too much microfiche.  If it were up to me, I would abolish the word entirely and turn back to the lexicological wisdom of the ancients, who saw librarians not as feeble sorters and shelvers but as heroic guardians.  In Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian cultures alike, those who toiled at the shelves were often bestowed with a proud, even soldierly, title: Keeper of the Books.”  In the opinion of historian Barbara Tuchman, librarians believe that “books are humanity in print.”  Librarians are guarding mortal flesh, and if books are not protected, the past dies.

     This wonderful little book tells the sad tale of a man on a path to ruin, and of the ruin he leaves behind on his path.  It also tells about the glorious human need to question, wonder, journey, voyage, explore, and tell stories about it. 

     I was captivated with the tale that Miles Harvey most eloquently tells, and I highly recommend it. 

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 13, 2007 11:58 pm

    Thanks for recommending this book. Every book I have on grammar is so boring. This one sounds good. I’ll try to find it at Borders.

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